For the next couple weeks I am going to post a two-part series of articles to answer one of the most common questions my father and I receive—“How do we help kids who are questioning their faith?”
This article first appeared in the March/April, 2011 Thriving Magazine, a Focus on the Family publication.
Most children raised in Christian homes enter a stage — often during their teen years — where they wonder if their parents' faith is right for them. After a time of questioning, some embrace that faith, making it their own. Others turn away to walk another road.
For Sean McDowell, that wondering phase came during his first year of college, when he began to wrestle with a number of questions about the truth of Christianity and the existence of God. As he struggled with these questions, he knew there was one person he needed to be honest with: his dad. But when your father is renowned Christian apologist Josh McDowell, that discussion can be a difficult one to initiate.
Sean, talk about the events in your life that led to doubting Christianity.
Sean: Growing up, I never really questioned my faith. That changed because of two simultaneous events in college. First, I took a class called "Authentic Manhood," which encouraged me to take an honest look at the shortcomings of my father so I could more fully love him for who he is. This was the first time I really confronted the fact that — while I think my dad is the greatest dad ever — it hurt sometimes when he was gone. And it's natural to see our heavenly Father through the lens of our earthly fathers.
Second, I came across some websites that directly challenged Evidence That Demands a Verdict and the rest of my dad's apologetics. While I can look back now and see the weaknesses in these objections, at the time it was quite unsettling. So I hit a point in my life — as many young people do — where I was asking deep intellectual and existential questions. And it wasn't enough for me to believe something because my parents did. I had to find the truth for myself.
Josh, did you ever wonder if your son would someday question the faith you had taught him?
Josh: I always prayed for the day that my kids would doubt Christianity because everybody must personalize their faith. If our kids never struggle with their faith, they will have borrowed convictions. So I had been waiting for each of my kids to come to this point.
When your son revealed his uncertainties, how did you respond?
Josh: I was actually excited! One goal in raising kids is to help them independently recognize God's love. So I told Sean he was wise to question the things he had been taught. And I gave him two pieces of counsel: First, I told him that if he honestly sought the truth, he would find it. Second, I told him not to reject something simply because it was part of his parents' faith.
Sean, no doubt this was a difficult conversation to begin with your father. What was your reaction to your father's words?
Sean: I knew in my heart that my parents would love me no matter what, but I think I really needed to hear my dad say it. So it meant a lot to me when he said that he and Mom would love me no matter what I concluded. And I was grateful for his reassurance, too, that I would discover the truth if I looked for it. And that's exactly what I did.
Talk about that search for truth and the conclusions you came to.
Sean: I started studying, reading books by Christian apologists and skeptics. I read as much of both sides as I could. And after much reflection, I came to the conclusion that my faith was well-grounded. The evidence for Christianity is compelling, but the thing that struck me the most was Jesus of Nazareth. I just couldn't explain how a man with no political or military power could have such a world-changing impact. And it wasn't just the historical evidence that shook me — it was also His insight into the human condition. The central problem with the world, according to Jesus, is the wickedness of the human heart. We want to do everything our way. Even though I was a pretty decent kid growing up, I began to clearly recognize my own pride and rebellion against God. I, too, needed a savior.